Saturday, January 6, 2018

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XXV

There was always a sly self-deprecation and a sweet sensuality in pianist Fats Domino's voice which added great warmth and emotional intensity to his work. After building a solid rapport with black audiences in the early fifties, he infiltrated the white charts later in the decade with a succession of crossover hits including the moody "Blue Monday," the rollicking "Whole Lotta Loving," and the subversive "Blueberry Hill." Since Fats (who went to spirit in 2017) didn't possess in his voice the swagger of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, he preferred seduction to aggression and the words would often be couched in innuendo. Randy Newman learned much from Fats Domino in both style and humour. He also did some of the arrangements on Fats is Back!, Domino's 1969 comeback album. Fats returned the favour by covering Newman's Domino-inspired "Have You Seen My Baby?" from 12 Songs. One can't imagine Domino covering, as critic Scott Montgomery once mused, Newman's songs about sex and arson ("Let's Burn Down the Cornfield"), a genteel rapist ("Suzanne"), or suicide by way of a beach cleaning machine ("Lucinda"). But "Have You Seen My Baby," which borrows its opening line from Ernie K-Doe, is right in Fats's wheelhouse. It's a playful romp that easily takes its place in the canon of great New Orleans rhythm and blues – especially with shrewd Newman lines like "I say, 'Please don't talk to strangers, baby' / But she always do / She say, 'I'll talk to strangers if I want to / 'Cause I'm a stranger, too.'"

Friday, January 5, 2018

Delectable Samples: A 2017 Arts Roundup

Robert Lepage in 887.

Since I rarely write about the arts, I welcome the opportunity to briefly comment upon what I enjoyed most this year, even though several of the pieces below have been reviewed by colleagues at Critics At Large. Apart from, perhaps, television, my sampling from the arts scene is relatively small yet I did experience some wonderful aesthetic moments. – Bob Douglas

Two theatre productions I attended this year were outstanding. Auteur Robert Lepage’s one-man bravura performance in 887 unspools the interplay between the fragmented recollections of his family life and the perils of collective Quebec memory from the 1960s to the present. 887 was the number of the apartment building on Murray Avenue in Quebec City where Lepage spent his formative years. The staging is jaw-dropping: a revolving set showing the interior of his current apartment and the exterior of his childhood home that reveals a doll’s-house replica of that apartment complex, toy cars, puppets and hand shadows. The catalyst for these reveries occurred in 2010 when the organizers of a cultural anniversary invited Lepage to recite by heart a 1968 poem, “Speak White.” He found that he could not learn the lines until he had explored his family history, particularly his relationship with his absent father, and how the personal dynamics intersected with the larger world of nationalist politics.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Poet Marilyn Bowering (1984)

Marilyn Bowering, in 2016. (Photo courtesy of

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to writers and artists from all fields. In 1984, I sat down with Canadian poet, novelist and playwright Marilyn Bowering.

Marilyn Bowering published her first book of poetry, The Liberation of Newfoundland, in 1973. When we spoke in 1984, her seventh, The Sunday Before Winter, had just been released. The book would earn her a nomination for a Governor General's Award later that same year. She went on to garner a second nomination in 1996 for Autobiography. Bowering's most recent book of poetry, entitled Threshold, was published in 2015.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Marilyn Bowering as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1984.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Embodied Meanings: The Haunting Worlds of Joseba Eskubi

Untitled #1, 2016, by Joseba Eskubi. (20 x 29 cm, acrylic).

"He who fights with monsters should be careful. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Aphorism 146, Beyond Good and Evil

This artist’s visions are almost indescribable. But not quite. His style used to be known somewhat as biomorphic abstraction. But not quite. The Spaniard Joseba Eskubi works with soft, amorphous and organic forms in a universe of perpetual decay, entropy, erosion and healing. They are exquisitely beautiful as well as terrifying. Perhaps all the most beautiful paintings, when it comes right down to it, are also closely aligned with terror. His paintings appear to occupy a surreal world. And yet they are nonetheless accurate depictions of the realms and domains we all travel to in dreams. His work is often focused on a single organic figure which appears to be filled with dark secrets, low, hidden movements and peculiar metamorphoses, and they are often overflowing with the kind of tension which arises from staring frequently into the abyss. In fact, perhaps, his charming little diagrams are maybe the way the abyss sees us when it stares back.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Black Day in July: Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit

Will Poulter and Anthony Mackie in Detroit.

There certainly couldn't have been a more timely film released last summer than Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit, which dramatized the 1967 five-day race riots in the Motor City that left 43 dead and close to 1,200 injured. Besides commemorating the 50th anniversary of this ugly tragedy, Detroit is also a powerful, unsettling and politically prescient piece of dramatic realism that creates a reverberating link to a number of contemporary events. As we've seen, race relations in the early stages of the Trump era have deteriorated so badly that within weeks of the movie's release neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched openly and defiantly in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans without fear of recrimination.The fact that Detroit disappeared from screens – without a whisper – within weeks of Charlottesville, amply demonstrates that the picture is still in need of a hearing.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Richard Wilbur, 1921-2017: Molière’s Emissary

Richard Wilbur passed away on October 14, 2017, at the age of 96.

Among the many achievements of the poet Richard Wilbur, who died in October, perhaps his least recognized is the work he did as a translator of neoclassical French playwrights – Racine, Corneille and especially Molière. Wilbur translated ten of Molière’s plays, originally written in Alexandrine couplets (six beats to the line), into iambic pentameter, which is a more natural meter for English speakers, as my wonderful undergraduate Shakespeare professor, Alan Levitan, liked to illustrate with the spontaneous iambic line, “Give me a chocolate ice cream cone with sprinkles.” In his introduction to his first interaction with Molière, The Misanthrope (1955), Wilbur argues, “The constant of rhythm and rhyme was needed, in the translation as in the original, for bridging great gaps between high comedy and farce, lofty diction and ordinary talk, deep character and shallow. . . . [W]hile prose might preserve the thematic structure of the play, other ‘musical’ elements would be lost, in particular the frequently intricate arrangements of balancing half-lines, lines, couplets, quatrains, and sestets. There is no question that words, when dancing within such patterns, are not their prosaic selves, but have a wholly different mood and meaning.” By way of example, he offers a prose translation of one speech from the play, adding, “Even if that were better rendered, it would still be plain that Molière’s logic loses all its baroque exuberance in prose; it sounds lawyerish; without rhyme and verse to phrase and emphasize the steps of its progression, the logic becomes obscure . . . not crystalline and followable as it was meant to be.”

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Best of CAL 2017

Critics at Large Summer Meeting, August 4/17 ( r. Kevin Courrier, Danny McMurray, Steve Vineberg, Devin McKinney, Justin Cummings, Bob Douglas and Mark Clamen)

Back in January 2010, David Churchill, Shlomo Schwartzberg and I came up with the idea of Critics At Large. We envisioned a daily online arts journal that would provide for us the freedom to write – a freedom we were beginning to lose working in magazines and newspapers. Growing rapidly tired of plying our trade in a field where desperate careerism was taking the place of collegiality and editors were beginning to reward expedience, we wanted to remain more true to the pleasures of critical writing. We also wanted to discover what kind of reader we could cultivate and who they might turn out to be. Over the last eight years, many things changed in both our writing and in our audience. For one thing, Critics At Large became less a haven for frustrated writers and more an accomodating home for a diverse and hopeful group who saw the magazine as a possibility. We began attracting a motley crew from various backgrounds who helped change Critics at Large for the better. A number of men and women, young and old, experienced and not, came to shape our identity rather than take on the one we already had. Along that path, we also attracted veteran arts critics who wanted to continue to address the work that inspired them, but we also drew inexperienced writers trying to find the true value of having a voice to speak with. When I read individual pieces each day, I marvel at the sheer range of material and the keen passion each writer brings to their subject. As for our readers, not only have they been rapidly growing, but the diversity of opinion in the magazine has helped us reach out to a much wider audience.What became most important for me, as one of its co-founders, was watching Critics At Large grow beyond my own expectations into a continually morphing organism that embraces the freedom our writers bring to it. For those who believe that arts criticism isn't about having the right opinion, but instead is a means by which the writer and reader mutually discover their own personal relationship to the arts, I think we are succeeding in getting there. As a way to celebrate that goal, and, I suppose, to amply demonstrate it, here is a look back at some of my own favourite pieces from 2017. They aren't presented in any order of preference. Rather than commenting on the writer and their work, I've selected specific quotes that I think best reflects their value to me as critics. As I continue on as editor, writer, and reader, I can truly say that I'm proud to call them colleagues.

Kevin Courrier
Critics At Large